About 350 people gathered at Place Émilie-Gamelin on Thursday evening and marched through downtown Montreal for the seventh annual Sisters in Spirit Memorial March and Vigil for Missing and Murdered Native Women.
Bridget Tolley, an Aboriginal woman whose mother was killed by Quebec police in 2001, founded the annual vigil in 2005. She collaborated with Sisters in Spirit (SIS), an Aboriginal research and policy initiative of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) whose funding was cut by the federal government in 2010.
This year, a record 163 vigils were held across the country, drawing tens of thousands of Native and non-native supporters to honour the missing and murdered Native women in Canada.
A virtual candlelight vigil was also held online, garnering over 542 messages of solidarity.
Stories of negligence in police responses to situations of violence against Native women are common. When a Sûreté du Québec police cruiser struck Gladys Tolley – Bridget Tolley’s mother – the officer in question was never charged. A request for an independent investigation by the Quebec government was subsequently denied.
According to SIS, at least 600 Native women have gone missing or have been murdered since 1980, though activists believe the number to be closer to 3000 – a discrepancy they attribute to incomplete police records.
This year, NWAC issued a petition calling on the government to hold a national public inquiry that involves Native women and communities.
Although the United Nations has repeatedly called on the government of Canada to undertake a comprehensive plan of action against what Amnesty International Canada calls a “national human rights crisis,” the government has thus far refused to cooperate.
“It benefits the government to ignore our calls for a public inquiry,” said Ellen Gabriel, a Mohawk activist who spoke at the vigil. “[Aboriginals] are creating more jails for the Harper government.”
Aboriginal leader John Cree agreed with Gabriel, and had stronger words for the government’s treatment. “They don’t seem to care because they think we’re animals,” he said.
When Métis journalist and activist Irkar Beljaars organized the first Montreal vigil in 2007, only thirty people attended, a stark contrast to the hundreds that gathered on Thursday evening. Since 2009, Beljaars has partnered with Missing Justice, a grassroots solidarity campaign of the 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy at Concordia.
Nina Segalowitz, an Aboriginal caseworker, encouraged march-goers to not only mourn for those lost, but to “celebrate all the women that continue to fight every day.”
Drumming and singing from both Native and non-native supporters accompanied the peaceful march to Phillips Square. The evening culminated with both traditional and contemporary cultural acts, several speakers, and a candlelit moment of silence.
Despite the positive mood of the march and the vigil, there was a pervasive current of frustration, evident in comments from speakers and march-goers alike.
Tanya, a Concordia student, criticized the government’s failure to address this issue properly. “I’m ashamed by the fact that you can barely find any information about [the issue]. It’s a real disaster,” she said.
Bianca Mugyenyi, a program coordinator at the 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy, echoed these sentiments, calling the situation an “epidemic.”
“The government is not providing solutions. They’re indifferent, and this makes indigenous women incredibly vulnerable to violence,” Mugyenyi told The Daily.
Amnesty International Canada reports that Native women in Canada are five to seven times more likely to be killed violently than their non-native counterparts.
The Missing Justice campaign also criticized the federal government for choosing to increase police power – allowing police to obtain warrants and install wiretaps –rather than continuing to fund SIS. Aboriginal activists maintain that these increased privileges will only be used to further criminalize native communities.
Quebec Native Women President Viviane Michel told the gathered crowd at Place Émilie-Gamelin that she was tired of the stigmatization of Native women.
“You go to the police to ask for help, and they respond with ‘your daughter has been missing for two, three, four days? She’s probably just drunk somewhere,’” she said in French. “I am so sick of Native people being immediately associated with the problem of alcoholism.”